If one wrote a manual for the ambient musician, it would probably contain an appendix listing words and images to steer clear of, if only because their over-use has toppled into cliché. The words ‘bells’ and ‘island’ would probably be high on the list, along with album covers depicting clouds, the sea and the horizon. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things per se but when several arrive in combination, the casual observer might feel that a tendency to lean on well-thumbed ideas on the exterior might be symptomatic of a lack of inspiration inside.
The rainforest sounds and tinkling of a piano on the opening “Blue Black & Red” does little to assuage fears, although the rest of the arrangement – the slow percussive pulse, the squeaks and squeals around the periphery – does suggest more original thinking lies ahead and so it proves, but there’s a quite a bit of patience needed to find it. About 90 seconds into the title track, the synthy string quartet gets stuck in a loop and “An Island” veers away from light, unchallenging ambient into something much more interesting, as booming drones steer the sound in a new direction. Unfortunately, the plinky piano makes a reappearance and drags everything back towards sub-Vangelis territory. But for a couple of minutes, Linear Bells show real promise, establishing a safe-sounding environment and then subverting it.
It’s a recurring theme for Linear Bells across An Island as a whole, rather than individual tracks. The found sound and field recordings provide a suitably cinematic backdrop but there’s little to sufficiently engage with in the first half of the album. Fortunately, having focused rather too much on piano-noodling – I’ve nothing against it, but it doesn’t really need to be here – Linear Bells breaks out the more atmospheric works in the shape of “Downtown Teenagers” and “Running After Miss Kittin”. The latter moves away from the sounds of nature to be buffeted by the noise of a more mechanical and industrial environment. It’s a powerful piece, and its mood is continued by the strident guitar work of “Solar Flare In My Mouth”, which nods in the direction of Linear Bells’ fellow countryman, M83.
Whilst there was a little promise shown in the opening tracks, expectations are exceeded in this sequence of pieces, which makes one wonder if there was some great attempt at misdirection throughout the album. It begins to feel as if there are two Linear Bells operating in tandem, one a slightly underwhelming ambient producer, the other a top-notch manipulator of accessible atmospheres. It all gets very confusing, as if Linear Bells intentionally ticks every box on a list of ambient music clichés, then subverts the established mood. Thankfully, the interesting side comes out just about ahead, but the unwary are directed towards sampling “Running After Miss Kittin” rather than any of the opening trio of tracks. (Jeremy Bye)